A Great American Play becomes a Great American Film with “Fences,” Denzel Washington’s letter-faithful adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece.
Set in Wilson’s beloved Pittsburgh in the late 1950s, it’s about the African American diaspora, sons and daughters of cotton pickers come north to find better lives. It’s about African American aspiration and deep-seeded bitterness that decades cannot erase. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, responsibilities vs. desires, it’s all in this intimate yet emotionally epic story about a garbage man, his friends and his family.
Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Broadway revival performances as Troy and Rose, a long-married couple still full of lust, frisky, ribald banter and love.
“I love this woman,” Troy tells his best friend and ready-made audience, Bono (Broadway veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson. “I love this woman so much it hurts. I love her so much…I done run out of ways of loving her.”
He doesn’t care if Rose overhears him. He’s ready with a comeback the second she opens her mouth.
“This is men talk. I got some talk for you later. You know what kind of talk I mean. You go on and powder it up.”
Men in their 50s, Troy and Bono ride the back of a garbage truck and bitch about “Why only white men get to be drivers?” Troy stoops over the payroll sheets and slowly signs his name every Friday. He turns his pay envelope over to Rose. He talks tightwad tough-love to his jazz-playing son by another woman (Russell Hornsby) who always shows up on paydays for a “loan.”
And he rides herd on his teenage son with Rose. Cory (Jovan Adepo) is a football playing teen being recruited by a college “way down in North Carolina.” Cory forsakes his chores for football practice, one of which is helping his dad build a fence, a fence that never seems to get started, much less finished.
It turns out Troy had sporting dreams himself, but don’t tell him he was “too early” to catch the integration of baseball. And he’s not above taking that out on the kid.
“The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway.”
Troy Maxon is one of fiction’s great creations — complex, gregarious, generous, petty and mean. He laughs big, waxes lyrical and tells tall tales about his wrestling match with death.
“Death ain’t nothin’ but a fastball on the outside corner.”
And Washington, one of the finest actors of his generation, just devours this guy. He and his Broadway “Fences” co-star Henderson rattle through the banter of two back-slapping, gin-bottle-passing old pals who knew each other when times were tougher than they are now. The only thing that can tamp down Troy’s seeming ebullience is Rose, a serious, loving woman who deserves his devotion, who staunchly remains the better angel on his shoulder, even when he’s brushing her off.
“I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams…and I buried them inside you,” she tells him. “I planted a seed and waited and prayed over it.”
Davis is reliably magnificent in the part, both in delivering her heartfelt lines and reacting to Troy’s bitter, hard-bitten responses.
“I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain’t got no tears. I done spent them.”
The film is a theatrical production, calling attention to its limited attempts to “open up” the play and underlining the natural-seeming stage directions that keep the two and three character scenes moving. Occasionally, Washington lets the interactions turn static and flat.
And while the cast is stellar — Mykelti Williamson of “Forrest Gump” is Gabe, Troy’s war-wounded touched-in-the-head brother — young Adepo seems mild-mannered, modern and too meek to stand up to his bullying father.
But Washington more than does justice to the late playwright whose “Pittsburgh Cycle” is the masterwork of the modern American theater. August Wilson’s plays, built on stunningly-real and compelling characters, rich in setting and historic meaning, rife with metaphor (“Fences” keep things out, and keep other things in), have only reached the playgoing public before now.
When Oscar nominations for “Fences” come out, that could change.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references
Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo
Credits:Directed by Denzel Washington, script by August Wilson. A Paramount release.
Running time: 2:22